Today we’re going to have a little fun and talk about some things that are kind of wild – we’re going to talk about post-modernity, conservatism, and the President of the United States. It may not be immediately apparent how all those things go together, but I’m hoping to weave a little tale for you that helps make sense of these things. This is the most political episode so far, and it’s bound to ruffle some feathers. But I’ll say this here and then I’ll say it again later – the goal is not to rake conservatism across the coals. I could do a whole episode on how Democrats are a right mess, too. The goal is to make sense of our sitting President. And to make sense of our sitting POTUS we have to think about the movement he claims to represent. Our goal, as always, is to try and make sense of the world we are living in.
We’ve talked some about post-modernity before when we talked about conspiracy theory, so some of this might be review if you have listened to previous episodes, so I won’t belabor old points too much, but I do want to touch on that subject. And I want to make some other connections to our current status. Specifically, I want to argue that the conservative ideology is, contrary to its proclamations, a post-modern one, and Donald Trump is the quintessential post-modern president. We’re going to get controversial today!
The first thing we need to do is talk about what post-modernity (and post-structuralism) are. And to do that we’re going to talk about three people: Jean Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
We’ve already discussed Lyotard a little, so let’s just review the big stuff. Lyotard noted that in the modern era (he wrote about this in 1979) we have a certain amount of incredulity toward “grand narratives” or “metanarratives”. These metanarratives are the stories by which we organize our realities, as we discussed in our episode on conspiracy – so God, capitalism (or Marxism), science, etc. For years we set up our whole lives as if these paradigms were objective fact. Some people clung to some narratives more fiercely than others, but the Enlightenment basically gave us these narratives of “progress” that defined the West Interestingly, it appeared as if the Enlightenment was going to weaken the “God” narrative for a while, but at least in America that didn’t happen as much as it did in maybe other parts of the world. That could be because in America religion aligned itself with other narratives, like capitalism, for example, that remained strong, and sort of twisted its identity a bit. But in the postmodern era much of this has come under scrutiny – the trappings by which we understood the world, like science and religion, are being questioned by a society that is going through a technological shift and is shaped as much by communication and media as it is by these grand “truths.”
Then there’s Jacques Derrida, who for a few years was the closest thing the academic world had to a rock star, even though nobody had any idea what he was talking about half the time. Derrida’s work attacked the idea that there is an objective truth attached to our words. Language can’t be referential. Words only make sense in relation to other words. But our knowledge of the world comes from language. So this is complicated – we can only know words in relation to other words, and words have no objective meaning, but we only know things because of words. That’s a hefty indictment of what we know. There is space between what you say, what you refer to, and what you mean. He calls that the “differance.” Meaning happens in that space. Derrida encouraged people to challenge binary thinking – don’t think in terms of black/white, yes/no, true/false. Think of the space between. The “differance. “He encouraged people to “deconstruct” texts to take apart those binaries. To find new centers for a story – to reconceptualize the stories we tell. And all of this is a matter of “playing” with language. We use words to deconstruct and reconstruct the worlds in which we live.
Finally, let’s talk briefly about Michel Foucault. We’ve touched on him before, so we won’t spend a ton of time here, but let’s talk about some basics. Foucault was primarily interested in the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as social control. He is also critical of the idea that people can have absolute knowledge of the world. He spends a lot of his time trying to show that what at one point was considered absolute and true was actually historically contingent. He thinks even the idea of absolute truth is a historically contingent idea. For some this tends toward nihilism, but for others this is freeing – Foucault says that “we always begin anew” when it comes to knowledge. At the same time, he is critical of the modern, Cartesian (remember Descartes?) view of knowledge that he says separates ethics from knowledge. Now he says anybody who thinks they are rational and can use the scientific method has knowledge. It lacks “spirituality.” Knowledge and power create norms and subjects – we categorize people using knowledge and power and thereby create new norms and common sense. And what we think of as absolute or true, thereby changes
But look, postmodern and post-structural theory is about as ivory tower as it gets. This is the stuff that we make fun of academics for. This is the kind of thing you can sit around and talk about for hours and not have said anything helpful or valuable to anybody in the so-called real world. So why do I mention it, even this briefly, today? I want to talk about conservatism in the United States (we could talk about the rising tides of populism internationally and conservative movements in other countries as well, but I’m going to focus on American conservatism) and the current President, Donald Trump. Conservatives in general, if they every talk about it, tend to denigrate postmodernism for its rejection of truths and binaries, but I am going to argue that the conservative movement in America is a very postmodern phenomenon and that Donald Trump is the perfect example of a postmodern president – or at least of everything people feared post-modernity would be.
First, let’s talk about conservatism in the U.S.
Before I do that, let me make a bit of a disclaimer: I was born and raised a Southern Baptist in west Texas in fundamentalist churches until I went to college. I have family that are important in Texas politics. I am from as conservative a background as it gets. So I’ll be speaking some from experience here and some from a more researched approach.
But conservatism as we know it was born in the late 70s/early 80s when the Reagan Revolution teamed up with the Moral Majority. This wasn’t out of nowhere – anti-government, mixed with religious, sentiment had been simmering in rural areas for ages. We can look back at things like the Scopes trial and see that there has been religious distrust of intellectuals, institutions, urban dwellers, and various markers of “progress” for quite some time in this country.
If you are not familiar with the Scopes trial, I’ll give you a brief summary. John Scopes was accused of violating a Tennessee law which made it illegal to teach about evolution in 1925. The trial was staged as a huge publicity stunt. And it gained plenty of attention. Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. The trial was a hyped-up contest between Fundamentalists (represented by William Jennings Bryan) and Modernists (represented by Clarence Darrow) to see what kind of knowledge was supreme in America – Biblical or scientific. There is some historical debate as to what the effect of this trial was on American culture. In some ways it was a win for the religious community because they won the trial. But at the same time the conventional view is the Creationists retreated into the background, humiliated after the trial. It may be more the case that Creationists didn’t lose face in the trial, so much as they lost their representative. Bryan died just days after the trial (there is some debate as to whether the trial led to his demise or not) and with him went the credibility, ethos, and intellectual standing that Creationists had been anchored to.
So there has been tension between institutions other than religion, and religion for quite some time. This makes sense – religion is one of the most powerful institutions in the world. It would certainly chafe against any other powerful institution making inroads into areas where it was established. And conventional wisdom was that religion was losing its influence as the nation secularized in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. New ideas about women’s rights, sexuality, and race relations seemed to be loosening the grip that religious institutions had on the American psyche.
Now, obviously we are speaking in broad strokes, here, and that is unfair in many ways. It’s not as if conservatism itself were disappearing – Obviously Nixon got elected. But Nixon’s brand of conservatism was something somewhat different than that which came out of the marriage of the Reagan Revolution and the Moral Majority of the early 80s.
So what was the Moral Majority?
The Moral Majority was a political organization founded in 1979 associated with the Christian Right and the Republican Party. It played a key role in mobilizing Christians as a political force – specifically Evangelicals. The group was founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr. a Baptist preacher. Traditionally, Baptists believed in keeping religion and politics separate. Falwell changed that. Very quickly, the Moral Majority became one of the largest conservative lobbying groups in the US. The Moral Majority lasted less than a decade but the changes it made to the political landscape were immeasurable. White, Southern, Christians became one of the loudest, most powerful, most dependable voting blocs in America, and they were almost certainly Republican. For the last 40 years American Evangelicalism has allied itself with pro-market, pro-White, anti-woman forces.
This raises interesting questions about the nature of truth in religion. Christianity has long been tainted by Europeanism, so it has had Whiteness embedded into it. That is not to say that the Black church is not a hugely important and successful body in the United States, but White Christianity maintains a certain hegemonic force. But does this square with the absolute “truths” from the Bible? Especially since the characters from the Bible were decidedly not White?
The Bible is decidedly problematic when it comes to women. On the one hand, it tells women to be quiet in church and submit to their husbands. On the other hand, it is women who find Jesus and are responsible for anyone knowing about his resurrection. The Bible has record of women deacons and women judges in Israel, but Paul had issues with women in church. So it really depends on which chapter you are reading what you think the Bible says about women. The Church has conveniently allied itself with the chapters that give the power to patriarchy.
The most difficult position for the church to defend is its pro-market/pro-capitalism stance. The Bible is very clear that it is up to churches and government to take care of the needy. That the richest should give what they can to take care of those who are most vulnerable. The Bible is very anti-rich (it will be harder for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God) and the whole point of a free market, as it is practiced in America, is to make as much profit as you can. The Bible is very clear that the needs of the community come first, as opposed to the market’s focus on the wants of the individual. This is a truth that has been completely rejected by much of America’s Christian institutions in favor of political and economic power.
But the conservative movement that came out of this period wasn’t JUST a religious movement. The Reagan Revolution was in many ways a small populist movement as well. This was an explosion of small government, if not anti-government sentiment. There was a focus on the “regular person” – a reliance on “common sense.” That makes people feel confident and comfortable – like they matter as much as anyone else, but it also devalues expert opinion. Rhetorically, the movement was about narrative, not argument. It was about the stories you told, not the rational point you made. It was very much about how you identified, not your logical argument. This movement was focused on identifying with “the little guy” in a personal way, not moving the needle in any kind of rational sense. And it was about the individual. There was a huge focus on the success and wants and liberties of the individual. That means the well-being of the community fell by the wayside. We are seeing the result of that right now as people refuse to think about the well-being of the community but instead are thinking about their personal comfort in the mask debate and whether they should be able to do to nail salons.
And it was the combination of this Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution that birthed the modern conservative movement. Reagan, with his folksy common-sense charm and rejection of elitism (Reagan populism) paved the way for George W. Bush’s aw-shucks inability to speak but relatability to the everyperson (I’d have a beer with him!) which made room for Sarah Palin’s complete rejection of any kind of rational argument in favor of homestyle cheek and charm, which opened the door for Donald Trump – a complete disregard for norms or rationality. All of this was taking place within the background of conservative news and radio that continually encouraged listeners to reject the evidence of experts, and sometimes even of their own eyes, and believe conservative authoritarians and pundits, creating a paradigm in which truth was negligible at best.
But what does all of this have to do with each other? How can we tie these threads together?
First, I don’t want you to hear me make the claim that all conservatives are religious. There are plenty of conservatives out there that don’t give a crap about religion or the Church or any of that. But to understand the current conservative movement you need to understand the way the conservative political movement and the Religious Right have used EACH OTHER to gain power. And because the two have become so intertwined with each other their philosophies have started to bleed into each other. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
So let’s talk about some of the defining characteristics of this movement – and I don’t mean its platform but what makes the movement tick.
Conservatism has a great respect for tradition, or the past. Donald Trump won an election based on the premise that the past is somehow better than what we have now, and he was going to take us to that glorious, unspecified past which will make things BETTER. That’s what “Make America Great Again” meant. That what once was is superior. We could spend a whole episode on the racialized and misogynistic undertones to that, but for now we’ll just emphasize that conservatives value tradition. They see value in our links to history.
Conservatives value a strict moral code. This is really tricky because a lot of the leaders of the conservative movement and the Republican party do not adhere to the rules of that strict moral code, but exemptions must be made to maintain power. Conservatives tend to have puritanical views on sex, drugs, entertainment, and favor strict, punitive punishments. If this were just a personal choice that wouldn’t really be all that important, but part of the conservative movement is aiming to see this code embodied in the law.
The conservative movement is pro-business and anti-labor. Conservatives favor business owners, not the people working in businesses. The movement has championed tax policies and wage policies that consistently favor those who are already comfortable as opposed to those trying to improve their situations. This, too, is a racialized stance and the connections there are complicated but unavoidable.
The conservative movement is invested in the supremacy of Western culture, specifically America. American exceptionalism, a hallmark of American thinking in general, is central to conservatism. Patriotism is not particular to America, but the American philosophy that our country is somehow special, blessed, or chosen above other nations has guided immigration, foreign policy, and colonial expansion since our nation’s founding. The conservative movement values this notion of exceptionalism and it drives much of their thinking on the way we interact on the global stage.
Hopefully from this description you can see something that lies at the base of the conservative movement – a kind of binary thinking. Conservatives, and we’re speaking in generalities here, tend to be more comfortable with “capital t” truths and ideas like right/wrong, good/bad. This is why the conservative movement in America has paired so well with the Religious Right. The Religious Right is largely a fundamentalist movement, and fundamentalism breaks the world down into binaries. That’s its appeal – it is simple and offers an easy way to understand the world. There are rights and wrongs and you know you are a good person doing the right thing if you are following the prescribed set of rules. Not all conservatives are religious fundamentalists. But conservatism, with its appeal to history and tradition, ethics, and focus on ownership (what they see as a kind of meritocracy), is well-matched with religion because it eschews relativism and change. It provides a sense of stability – there is RIGHT, TRUTH, and FAIRNESS.
So this sounds like the opposite of post-modernity, right? Invested in metanarratives like God and capitalism, binary thinking, linked to the past and definitive meanings…this is everything those guys I was telling you about earlier said the post-modern and post-structural age is NOT.
But let’s not talk about the supposed characteristics of the conservative movement – let’s look at the conservative movement in action.
If we’re going to talk about grand narratives it doesn’t get any grander than God, capitalism, and science.
First let’s talk about God. Is the conservative movement invested in a religious narrative? Certainly, some conservative voters are guided by their religion. But is conservatism guided by religion? I would argue it is not. There are certain cultural issues, such as equal rights for the LGBTQ community and abortion access that the conservative movement has couched their arguments against in the language of Christianity, but the movement at large has rejected the fundamentals of Christianity and substituted a new variety that is more vested in maintaining power than in protecting the meek and the vulnerable. Jesus was very clear on what it meant to follow him. It means giving up your wealth to help the poor and the needy. The conservative movement, with its emphasis on pro-ownership policies, is about amassing wealth in the hands of a select few – those proverbial job creators. There IS a religious narrative to the conservative movement, but it is a rejection of the grand narrative and a substitution of a power relationship. As Foucault noted, truth is a matter of power. The conservative movement in much more invested in maintaining power than it is in the Christian ethos of helping the vulnerable (to be fair, that’s not solely an indictment of the conservative movement – the same could be said of the so-called progressives in the Democratic party). They have rejected the metanarrative in favor of power.
So let’s talk about capitalism. This one should be clear! Pro-business policies! Regressive and flat taxes! Anti-labor positions! Limited government spending and limited government influence! The markets should be free and should be the deciding factor! If there IS a metanarrative that drives the conservative movement it is this one. But even then, the drive to maintain power is much more important and has led to a rejection of the grand narrative in a variety of ways. Instead of limiting spending conservatives push extreme spending on the military in defense of American exceptionalism. Large corporations and farms receive tax subsidies to maintain the market as it is instead of letting it work as it might “naturally.” In times of crisis we maintain those businesses deemed “too big to fail” with corporate bailouts. The capitalist narrative may be pro-business, but it isn’t about letting the market decide, it is about amassing and maintaining power. The liberal market is kind of a red herring.
Finally, science. Sadly, this is the most obvious rejection of a grand narrative by a movement. Populism is spreading globally, and part of populism is a rejection of elitism and expertise (often in favor of other elites, but I digress). The rejection of science out-of-hand by the conservative movement is a sticking point for many people on the left that they just can’t comprehend. Climate-change denial seems so nihilistic. We are literally talking about the fate of the planet, here. But once again, this is about amassing and maintaining power. Accepting the science on climate change would require massive, institutional and market change, and people on BOTH sides of the aisle are reticent to make those necessary kinds of changes. It would disrupt the status quo. Now, it’s interesting the science denial is picking up speed on the left as well – you’ve got plenty of so-called progressives who will argue about vaccines all day long (vaccines are a public good – get them), too. But when it comes to maintaining power it is easier to just reject science.
So the conservative movement is in many ways a rejection of grand narratives in favor of maintaining power. On thing I want to note here is that this is not mean to be just an episode in which I bash conservatives – I could just as easily make an episode about progressives doing the same thing. But it’s important to understand the conservative side of it because Donald Trump claims to be a conservative president. This is the philosophy he claims he espouses. So we need to be able to look at it with clear eyes. And if Donald Trump represents a movement that has rejected the grand narratives, what does that mean for him as a leader?
Donald Trump is definitively a post-modern president. You may remember back to our episode on truth and conspiracy, but it applies to the Trump presidency in spades. Trump has rejected meta-narratives about science, capitalism, God, and ideas like truth, right/wrong. He substitutes conspiracy theory for those metanarratives to make sense out of a confusing world. He flouts norms and notions of “truth” and “lie” in an effort to maintain power – politically, culturally, and socially. Trump’s rejection of religious truth and scientific truth are obvious. He makes no efforts to hold on to those narratives. The only truth he seems to cling to is the capitalist one – and that, as we noted before, seems more about power than it does about any devotion to liberalism. He put a hold on checks to recipients of government checks so he could put his name on them and pushed through tax cuts that inordinately helped the wealthy – his love of the market is very much about maintaining his personal brand.
And as for small government, that seems to have completely been lost to Trump. His goal from the beginning seems to be to expand his power and claim powers that are not his. The party has not tried to stop this but has simply become more authoritarian. Conservatism is bending to Trump as opposed to Trump being a conservative. Small government, once a staple of conservatism, has been rejected in the name of power.
From the outset it appears as if Trump has embraced the nihilism that many fear post-modernity represents – complete and total moral relativism, no truth, and a lack of guideposts for clear thinking and behavior. But Trump is heavily invested in maintaining and negotiating systems of power – and he uses language and institutions to that end.
Trump’s leadership, then, is not encumbered by any anchoring narratives – he is not beholden to science, God, truth, the binaries of right or wrong, or even capitalism. His goals seem to be to negotiate and maintain power – power in terms of institutional power, popularity, and political power
This might be illustrated by the hydroxychloroquine story. Trump began touting the virtues of hydroxychloroquine weeks ago as a remedy for COVID-19. He did so with little scientific backing – it seemed to just be the drug he had settled one. In the interim time experts have produced data that indicate the drug might actually be harmful and have recommended it only be used in hospital settings or clinical trials. Trump’s response has been not only to reject the science on political grounds, but to announce he is taking the drug himself. This reaction is unmoored from any scientific grounding – but buttressed by the President’s own rhetoric. The President is fashioning a reality outside of science and constructing it narratively.
Trump plays with words and with reality, constantly constructing and re-constructing worlds in which things like science are rejected. He has tried to reach out to appeal to religious groups by saying churches should re-open, but he does not rely on religious narratives in an of themselves. He eschews any ethical or moral code that religion might suggest. He has flatly rejected the core dogma of Christianity multiple times in public. His only connection to religion is what it offers to him in terms of negotiating power.
His chief concern seems to be opening up the economy, so one could say he is beholden to the narrative of capitalism. But his proposed spending on the military, the harm he has done to the budget, and his willingness to support flagging corporations, especially at the cost of small businesses, indicates that once again this is less about a devotion to free market ideals and more about negotiating power discourses.
Trump operates completely independently from any notions of truth, fact, or objectivity. He seems to believe he can fashion the world he wants through a well-curated Twitter account and controlling the narrative in the media. He has definitely rejected the metanarratives that Lyotard described in favor of things like conspiracy and his own rhetorical constructions to fashion reality. He uses language and words to fashion that reality. He negotiates power relationships to create his own truth. Trump is definitively, and somewhat nihilistically, a post-modern leader of a postmodern movement.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.